Fence Sitting Not Allowed
We had to choose between accepting the draft or fighting against it; espousing unquestioning patriotism or taking a moral stand against the Vietnamese war; embracing societal values, or bathing in ones that alienated our parents, and giving lip service to equal rights or in John Lewis’s words, getting into “good trouble.”
I was a junior at the University of Pittsburgh in 1965. Like other radical students, I supported equal rights from the safety of SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) rallies and classes on sociology. Few of us knew the meaning of “good trouble.” That changed mid-March when a nationwide call went out for students to gather in Montgomery, Alabama, following Bloody Sunday on March 7th.
Talking the Talk
We traveled on weary Greyhound buses no longer safe for commercial travel but adequate for transporting committed college students. We felt self-righteous in our mission: we would be “preparing” Montgomery for the next Selma march, the one planned for March 21st.
We flirted and comfortably “talked the talk” until crossing the Alabama state line and saw an enormous billboard. Staring at us was a white-robed Klansman sitting on his white hooded horse and carrying a fiery cross. Above this unambiguous picture was a message that seemed written for the occupants of our bus. “Northern Agitators, Catholics, Commies and Jews, Return Home Before It Is Too Late.”
The message was again repeated, but in a more aggressive form as our bus entered Montgomery. A hailstorm of rocks and rotten vegetables were thrown at us by children and their proud parents. An appropriate welcome to “The Heart of Dixie.”
Walking the Walk
On March 18th, two days after arriving, approximately forty of us were attacked by state troopers as we peacefully and legally marched on the sidewalk. As I fended myself from a horse, everything I believed in about civil rights was tested. Beaming over an “A” term paper on civil rights was very different from facing injury or death for living it. Most people can look back on their lives and find experiences that changed their souls. Events so compelling you can’t forget them. Montgomery,1965 is one of those for me, as vivid today as it was fifty-five years ago.
Following my arrest for endangering the life of the armed state trooper and his horse, I, along with many others, were placed in a large holding cell filled with black and white protesters—many still bleeding from their wounds. When white protesters refused to move to an “all-white” cell, black prisoners wearing uniforms boldly stating who they belonged to were ordered to drag us out. Our response was to remain sitting on the floor and sing, “We shall Overcome.” Instead of dragging us out as instructed, the black prisoners gently lifted us with the same tenderness mothers carry their newborns.
I left Montgomery realizing that unless one is committed to “good trouble,” ethics are little more than hypothetical constructs. It would be forty years until I found the moral equivalent of the civil rights movement. It took the form of gratitude for hospice patients who taught me who I was and, more importantly, who I could become. The lesson in self-awareness was identical to the one taught to me by the actions of John Lewis and other leaders in the civil rights movement.
There are many ways to measure legacy: money, fame, status, etc. I prefer something more lasting: the answer to the question, “Did I make a difference?” Although you think a “yes” answer can’t approach John Lewis’s contribution, your legacy—as small as you think it is—will reverberate generations after your death. Your children, grandchildren, and their children and grandchildren will ask what you did as the world was falling apart. Did you just “talk the talk” or risk everything by “walking the walk?” Did you philosophize or act?
My granddaughters are ten months and five-years-old. I lovingly look at them and hope I will still be alive to hear them proudly say, “I got into good trouble, Grandpa.” I’ll smile, remember Montgomery, and thank John Lewis.
My parents had a reaction similar to your Aunt Bea’s. But I wasn’t heading out to Alabama, only to Chicago. It was Easter Sunday in 1967, and Martin Luther King was leading a march for civil rights and against the Vietnam war. My parents didn’t think marching in a possibly dangerous part of Chicago was more important than going to Easter mass! But I was 21, so I went ahead wearing my “Easter outfit” and heels. I told my mom I wanted people to see that just average church-going white folks cared about these causes. I wasn’t hurt or arrested. All I did was show up and march. And now all 5 of my grandkids have heard that little story…more than once.
And a great story it is! So far, my 6 year and 8 month old granddaughters haven’t tested my values–but who knows what next week will bring. The only thing I fear is that they will have a passion for bowling and playing the accordion. Good to hear from you Susanne.
At our national convention in 1972, I interviewed at least 20 people for a faculty position in a new, unique, progressive University with a mandate to serve minority people. None of the others had been to Alabama during that volatile period, or done anything like it. It seemed a good reason to hire you. And it worked out well.
I thought I was hired for my good looks!
Beautifully written, Stan, much appreciated. Brought me back to my Vietnam war protest days after I returned from that conflict in 1967. And new opportunities are now on the horizon. When will they ever learn. Thanks again.
Thanks for your kind words David. I agree with you about “new opportunities,” but what a price we are paying for it!
Thank you Stan and thank you for getting into good trouble.
I truly admire you for your commitment to humanity throughout your life.
My best to you and Wendy.
Thanks Addison. I think all of us (the old GSU group) have done the same–but differently. Hope to see you folks soon.
As your literary agent, a beautifully and well thought essay. Yes, one must remember that we all can’t be remembered by scores of people, but everyday kindnesses matter, and actions which we influence and teach our children and loved ones. Congratulations on your lovely grandchildren. They are blessed to have you as their grandfather, and yes, may they be courageous and get into “good trouble!”
Thank you Kimberley
I can still hear our Aunt Bea question what was so important in Alabama that could justify missing classes. 55 years later clearly it was so important. Proud of you brother.
As I am of you Mel. Hope to see you folks soon.
Thanks for your memories Dr. Stan. Being ten years older than you, I volunteered for the USAF during Korea to escape the draft with a high school chum. He died last Tuesday and was buried yesterday with honors. Our lives took separate paths while he was a high school teacher and I drifted from job to job until I finished college in 1968 and found my career, although we kept in touch. I wonder daily why I am still here and what my legacy will be. There will be no honors for me, but perhaps no life is wasted no matter how obscure it may be. Blessings.
You’re very welcome Lewis. I often wonder what the world would be like if everyone thought about the legacy they would leave. Although some might consider this to be a political statement, it isn’t. As a hospice volunteer I learned that legacy can take many forms and legitimately falls on all points of the political spectrum. “Did I make a difference?” as a question that may be political but more importantly deeply personal. It’s a question that dominated my hospice patient’s thinking as they approached death.
It”s the “good trouble” quote that brought my tears, Stan. I’m so proud of you and your commitment to making a difference. The world, especially the United States, is a scary and disappointing place right now, and I only hope that people with your courage and ethics will prevail. Thanks for your moving article.
Thank you for your kind words
Thanks, as always, Stan
Of course. Let’s talk soon
Lovely piece. Thanks for sharing your story.
You’re very welcome Judy
Hi Stan: In 1965 I was a newly licensed RN graduate of a diploma school in MT and a Junior at U of San Francisco; to get a BSN after being informed a bachelor degree would be the future entry level in nursing!
I was ready to get on the bus to Alabama until i called home —-My father supported my plan with caution: I would probably be arrested and could lose my nursing license because of it. My heart was there with you. Thanks for sharing the memory, RuthiE
You’re very welcome RuthiE. I had to call my mother and explain why I was in jail–more difficult than the 5 day hunger strike.
Really appreciated your essay, Stan–truly a theoritical stance is different from puting your body where your mouth is. I am going to share it with our little congregation, Kol Hadash, to whom you gave a presentation some years ago. Thank you!
you’re very welcome Alana. Keep safe
Stan, Your always up fo good trouble! I hope you Wendy and the family are well. How’s the. Fly fishing? Rich
We are going as well as possible. Unfortunately, flyfishing may have to wait until things settle down.
Good read, Stan! Black guards lovingly carrying you to the white area brought tears to my eyes. Keep on Truckin…
Thanks for your comment. It also brought tears to my eyes when I wrote it.